Why Write About Space? Blame it on Mars

August 31, 2004 at 11:53 am | Leave a Comment

So, why did I become a science writer? Earlier I wrote about what started me on the road to writing planetarium shows. But those weren’t my first published stories about science. The roots of my fascination with space and astronomy stretch back to my early childhood. I remember my dad taking me out to see the stars, which kindled something in me. We had books around with pictures of Saturn, which to me seemed like the strangest place in the universe. Later on, after the first successful space missions, I was mad to be an astronaut. Until I could grow up to become one (a goal I’ve not yet attained), we played games like “Mars Exploration”—featuring an alfalfa field, a cardboard box, and the active imaginations of several little girls and long afternoons of playtime in which to explore. (By the way, that game eventually became part of a planetarium show I wrote for the National Air and Space Museum’s Einstein Planetarium in 1996).

Valles Marineris simulation from European Space Agency

Valles Marineris image from European Space Agency

So, Mars was probably the first world I “explored” and it’s been with me ever since. My science writing career began, however, when I covered the Voyager/Saturn encounter in 1981 for my employer at the time, The Denver Post. I spent a week at JPL in Pasadena, California, mingling with other science writers, meeting the mission scientists, and marveling at the amazing images flowing back from the distant spacecraft and its planetary target.

But, Mars crept back into my consciousness a couple of years later. In 1984 was invited to attend a meeting called “The Case for Mars”—a sort of underground gathering of scientists who wanted to spur exploration of Mars. The Red Planet had sort of been “off the table” since the Viking missions and the NASA budget cuts made it look less like a target. So, these scientists wanted to keep Mars exploration on the table. For several days I attended meetings and talks that discussed some of the forerunners of recent Mars missions: Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, and the rovers. The goal was to layout the steps toward a manned mission to Mars sometime early in the 21st century.

That experience, and attendance at other Case For Mars meetings sent me back to school, ostensibly to study planetary science. I spent several years at the University of Colorado soaking up courses in astronomy, space science, and planetary science. All the while, I kept writing, took up lecturing at the planetarium, and worked as a comet researcher in one of the University’s labs. Eventually I also joined an HST instrument team, and wrote my first book about HST with co-author Jack Brandt.

Finally I decided it was time for graduate school, and then I ran smack into a dilemma I thought I’d never encounter: what to study. I really wanted to study astrophysics or planetary science, but the job market was discouraging, as were the prospects of getting into graduate school in those areas. But, even if jobs had been waiting and I could have chosen any program, there was another issue: I was really enjoying the life of a science writer. It allowed me to explore any issues I wanted, ask any questions I wanted, and get a panoramic view of the science areas that interested me. It was a tough choice: specialize in science or specialize in writing about science.

Ultimately, I chose to work toward a masters’ degree in science journalism. I got to keep my research job AND I could explore better ways to communicate science. It was perfect and I loved every minute of the intellectual challenges my situation presented. And, I have always held out the possibility that someday I’d go back to school and take that doctorate in planetary science—fulfilling that desire to explore Mars, in mind if not in body.

So, here I am, a science writer, pursuing understanding in the areas that interest me most, and sharing that understanding with others. It’s a fun ride!

How Did You Get Started?

August 15, 2004 at 21:38 pm | Leave a Comment

Sometimes when I’m out talking with people, the question comes up about how I got started as a science writer or planetarium show producer or got my interest in astronomy. Answering all of those would require a lengthy retelling of my life up to this point, which might be interesting over a few beers, but in a blog would be… well…lengthy. So, let’s select one of the above. How about…. planetarium show producer?
It’s really Mark’s fault. Back when we were in college he decided to pursue music composition using a Moog synthesizer. After a couple of years of patch cords and multi-tracking, he’d succeeded in some interesting pieces of music that sounded vaguely spacy and ambient. Then, we both heard that the university was building a new planetarium, and the next thing we knew, Mark had gone over to the construction site with a cassette tape in hand. He and the technical producer, a fellow named Jim Sharp, sat in Mark’s car listening to the music on the tape deck. One thing led to another and Mark ended up being the in-house composer and soundtrack producer for their planetarium shows for several years.
I got interested in doing planetarium work about that time, but really didn’t have an entry to it until a couple of years later, when we’d both left the university and formed a company called Loch Ness Monster Productions (later shortened to Loch Ness Productions) to market his music. I saw a pretty awful show in a planetarium (not to be named) and said, “By golly, I could do better than that!” And, Mark (who had been successfully selling albums to all and sundry and was looking for a new challenge) said, “Well, write it and we’ll produce it!”
So, I did. And a career writing planetarium shows was born. In the intervening [mumble, mumble] years I’ve written 35 shows, not just for us at Loch Ness Productions, but also for clients around the world. It’s a unique medium; I had to learn to “paint the dome” with words and vivid word pictures; not an easy task in a world that’s cued to TV and movie aspect ratios for education and entertainment.
What about the music, you ask? Well, simple. Mark’s produced seven albums of music, which you can learn more about (including cool audio clips) at: Geodesium. He actually has many more hours of music he’s produced, some of which will show up on albums in the near future. He has fans around the world and Amazon.com actually manages to sell his albums in satisfying numbers! His latest album, Stellar Collections is one of the best-sellers, which is very gratifying. Of course he also sells them through the website, where we also offer planetarium shows and related products.
So composing isn’t his only schtick, just as writing planetarium shows isn’t my only gig. Mark also produces shows—well, we both do. In fact, our recent HUBBLE Vision show is the first one I’ve been the main producer on— meaning that I wrote it, hired the narrator, chose the images, edited the narration (I didn’t produce the soundtrack—that’s still Mark’s bailiwick), and when we produced the video version of it, I worked on the video programming along with Mark, making key decisions about image placement, animations, etc. Mark was there every step of the way, since he’s also produced shows (more than I have, actually), so I wasn’t totally on my own. It was a true team experience. The payoff was watching our show as it premiered during the recent planetarium meeting in Valencia, Spain. Darned pretty it was and I was really proud of our team’s work (we have two employees who also contributed their talents to the overall production, and we were aided by several other companies (among them Sky-Skan Incorporated, and Evans & Sutherland Corporation) who provided useful production tools.
I think every writer should have experience of producing his/her work at least once. It opens your eyes to a lot of possibilities, and once in a while you find at least one cherished idea blown to pieces by ugly reality. If you’re good, you’ll roll with the punches and learn from the experience. And that’s what makes this fun!

A Postcard from HST

August 12, 2004 at 19:35 pm | Leave a Comment
Courtesy Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute
Courtesy Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute

Vacations always mean postcards or email from friends, usually ones lucky enough to be off somewhere exotic taking in the sights. HST has been transmitting images and data from the cosmos’s hotspots since 1990, and with very few exceptions, its views of the universe (from Earth orbit) are inspiring.

This one is a peek inside a gas cavity inside a molecular cloud. The cave is carved by the stellar wind and intense ultraviolet radiation from a nearby hot young star. This particular “exotic locale” is located about 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way.

So, if HST could send us back a postcard, what would it write? Let’s see!

On closer inspection N44F harbors additional surprises. The interior wall of its gaseous cavity is lined with several four- to eight-light-year-high finger-like columns of cool dust and gas. (The structure of these “columns” is similar to the Eagle Nebula’s iconic “pillars of creation” photographed by Hubble a decade ago, and is seen in a few other nebulae as well). The fingers are created by a blistering ultraviolet radiation from the central star. Like windsocks caught in a gale, they point in the direction of the energy flow. These pillars look small in this image only because they are much farther away from us than the Eagle Nebula’s pillars.

Want a bigger version of this image? Point your browser here.

Are We Watching the Slow Decline of an Old but Useful Friend?

August 7, 2004 at 17:15 pm | Leave a Comment

Yesterday NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute announced that the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph had been shut down due to failure of electronic parts. Here’s the announcement:

One of four science instruments aboard NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope suspended operations earlier this week, and engineers are now looking into possible recovery options.

The instrument, called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), was installed during the second Hubble servicing mission in 1997 and was designed to operate for five years. It has either met or exceeded all its scientific requirements.

Hubble’s other instruments, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), the Advanced Camera for Surveys, and the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2 are all operating normally.

The STIS instrument, which went into a suspended mode Tuesday, was not slated for replacement or upgrade as part of any future servicing mission.

NASA has convened an Anomaly Review Board to investigate the cause of the STIS problem and an investigation is underway to determine if the instrument is recoverable.

Preliminary findings indicate a problem with the +5V DC-DC power converter on Side 2, which supplies power to the mechanism’s electronics. STIS suffered a similar electrical malfunction in 2001 that rendered Side 1 inoperable.

A final decision on how to proceed is expected in the coming weeks as analysis of the problem progresses.

This is exceedingly worrisome. For now the telescope is working (what’s left of it), but as time goes by, more parts will fail, and ultimately we will watch as a productive and spectacular observatory is allowed to fall into disrepair. I understand the safety issues involved in shuttle repair missions for HST, but I wish there were a way to continue the productive life of this great observatory.

Galaxy Gem

August 5, 2004 at 13:38 pm | Leave a Comment
Like our Milky Way, galaxy NGC 3949 has a blue disk of young stars peppered with bright pink star-birth regions. In contrast to the blue disk, the bright central bulge is made up of mostly older, redder stars. NGC 3949 lies about 50 million light-years from Earth.

Like our Milky Way, galaxy NGC 3949 has a blue disk of young stars peppered with bright pink star-birth regions. In contrast to the blue disk, the bright central bulge is made up of mostly older, redder stars. NGC 3949 lies about 50 million light-years from Earth.

Want to know what we look like from outside the Milky Way Galaxy? Here you go—a privileged view from the Hubble Space Telescope. Of course, this IS a different galaxy, but it’s much like our own: brimming with starbirth regions, shaped into spiral arms and dust lanes that girdle a brilliant core where a black hole lies buried. Gaze at this and think of the millions of stars and planets and maybe even life forms that inhabit this galactic “twin” to our own!

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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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